Deep underground in the Maryland suburbs, about 30 feet beneath downtown Bethesda, a small bronze-colored statue of a woman sits perched on a steel beam, gazing upon construction workers as they excavate an enormous elevator shaft for the Purple Line light-rail project.
Similar statues accompany workers at a Purple Line tunnel under construction in Silver Spring, in storm water collection tunnels being built in the District and Cleveland, and in a light-rail tunnel under construction in Seattle.
The feminine presence on the predominantly male work sites is Saint Barbara, the patron saint of tunnelers, miners, artillerymen and others who work with explosives. Wherever workers in hard hats head below ground — amid the potential for something to go terribly wrong and collapse the earth around them — a small statue regularly stands watch.
“It’s not necessarily that we’re religious,” said Jeff Hammer, head blasting engineer for Maryland’s light-rail contractor, Purple Line Transit Constructors. “I just think some things bring good luck.”
Hammer said he’s heard of European workers who put so much faith in Saint Barbara’s protective powers that they won’t enter a tunnel without knowing she’s there.
Carlton Ray said Saint Barbara has been on every tunneling project he’s worked on in 35 years in the water utility business. Ray now oversees D.C. Water’s construction of 18 miles of tunnels to divert untreated sewage from local waterways.
Workers and Saint Barbara statues are blessed by a priest or minister at the outset of D.C. Water tunneling projects, he said.
“Tunneling has become much safer over the years, but it’s still a very risky business,” Ray said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of earth over your head when you’re 150 to 160 feet below ground. People feel comfortable being blessed by a priest and having Saint Barbara. . . . If the Lord is looking out for us, that’s a good thing.”
Kevin Murray, senior field engineer for the Purple Line shaft construction in Bethesda, said he thinks of Saint Barbara’s presence as more of a tradition than a religious symbol.
“I like the idea of it,” said Murray, who gets lowered into the shaft daily as part of planning for its eventual concrete lining. “You know someone is on your side.”
Statues travel around the country, from one job to another. The Saint Barbara at the Purple Line’s Silver Spring tunnel came from one of the recently completed D.C. Water tunnels. The one in the Bethesda elevator shaft came from a recently built light-rail tunnel in Seattle. Indiana-based Traylor Bros. worked, or is working, on all three projects.
As the story goes, the patron saint lived in the 3rd century as a beautiful young woman, whose rich pagan father locked her in a tower to protect her from the outside world. After Barbara became a Christian, numerous miracles occurred to protect her from her father. He eventually beheaded her and then died after being struck by lightning.
The Vatican eliminated Saint Barbara’s feast day, Dec. 4, from the church calendar in 1969, but workers on tunneling projects across the world often take a longer-than-usual lunch break on that day. (Purple Line workers got pizza this year.)
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “My Life With the Saints,” said the church cuts saints’ days from the calendar when there are questions about their historical veracity.
“Like some of the early Christian saints, Barbara’s story may be a mix of the historical and the legendary,” Martin said. “With some of these saints, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. But the devotion to her is real. We have to remember it’s a way for people to draw closer to God.”
Regardless of their religion, tunnelers say the statues are central to their underground work, which many consider more akin to mining.
Beyond the weather, people who build above ground pretty much know what natural conditions to expect, they say. On underground projects, engineers and geologists try to foresee what’s below via soil borings throughout a construction site before excavating begins.
But soil borings can miss things that become frustrating — and potentially dangerous — surprises. Soft soil can suddenly turn to solid rock, and vice versa. Hammering through a rock wall can reveal unexpected caverns that can bring on a collapse, or pour forth water or noxious gases.
“In our work, you have to listen to what the ground is going to let you do,” Hammer said. “What can go wrong is Mother Nature. We don’t know what she has in store for us down there.”
Of course, workers have more than statues overseeing their safety.
On the Purple Line project, the steel support beams shoring up the shaft that will eventually hold elevators between the street and Metro’s underground Red Line station in Bethesda are monitored constantly by sensitive geotechnical equipment, Hammer said. If the equipment detects the slightest movement, signaling that the structure is showing signs of stress, an alert goes out to engineers, he said.
A 12-person team specially trained in mine rescues is on call at all times in case of an emergency at the Silver Spring tunnel or Bethesda elevator shaft, Hammer said.
And for the big question: Does Saint Barbara work?
Ray, of D.C. Water, noted that the recently completed Blue Plains Tunnel required 1.6 million man-hours and had no “lost time” accidents. That means no injuries prevented anyone from at least returning to light duty the following day — a record Ray called remarkable on such a large, complex tunneling project.
“Who knows?” Ray said of whether Saint Barbara played a role. “We talk about safety and talk about it. Every little bit helps, right?”
Hammer said something seems to be working at the Bethesda elevator shaft. Ever since Saint Barbara took up residence in October, he said, minor problems, such as late deliveries of supplies, have “disappeared.”
“I don’t know if it’s just our level of preparedness or things are just breaking for us at the same time,” Hammer said. “But since she’s been in the shaft, things have been going much more smoothly.”